ST. PETERSBURG — Mark Kosower is a brilliant young cellist who just this season became principal cello of the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the most prized positions in the music world. Kosower will surely play the Dvorak Cello Concerto many times in years to come, but it's hard to imagine a finer performance of it than the one he gave Saturday night with the Florida Orchestra at Mahaffey Theater.
Kosower brought an uncanny combination of burning intensity and composure to the concerto, with each movement feeling deeper and more moving than the one before. The orchestra meshed fantastically well with him under music director Stefan Sanderling.
There was a nice connection between Dvorak and the other composer heard Saturday. Brahms, whose Serenade No. 1 took up the first half of the program, did the proofreading on the Cello Concerto for his and Dvorak's German publisher and then wrote to the publisher that "cellists can be grateful to your Dvorak for bestowing on them such a great and skillful work.''
The concerto was largely written during Dvorak's sojourn in the United States in the 1890s, and it was fun to hear the suggestions in Kosower's playing of folk influences on the Czech composer, tunes like Go Tell It on the Mountain and even Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair. The cellist's articulation of rapid passagework in the first movement was a model of clarity.
The second movement had Kosower in his instrument's lower register, with a tone like rich loam, set against flute trills and a clarinet phrase, typical of the sublime ensemble between soloist and woodwinds. The horn section shone, first in principal Robert Rearden's gorgeous, brief solo near the beginning of the concerto, then in a second-movement chorale. The finale featured slashing exchanges between Kosower and concertmaster Jeff Multer, building to the profound lament of the cello coda.
There is nothing profound about Brahms' Serenade, which was just his second orchestral work, but it has charm and humor, like the sly little tremolos in the strings around a flute and clarinet duet at the end of the first movement. Brahms is one of Sanderling's strengths, and this was an interesting work to hear from him, but he was unable to overcome the diffuse quality of some of the writing in the second and third movements.
A program of Brahms and Dvorak won't win any honors for being with-it or cool, but their music is what this 19th century machine, the symphony orchestra, was designed for. Saturday's concert, played to a virtually full Mahaffey, showed how glorious it can sound.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.